Jacob Is Renamed Israel (Twice): Why Does the Name Jacob Remain?
Jacob Is Named Israel Twice
Jacob is renamed Israel in two different stories. When Jacob returns from living with Laban, he encounters an angel on the way and wrestles with him. In that story, Jacob asks for a blessing before releasing the angel, whom he had just defeated. The angel responds:
בראשית לב:כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב.לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל.
Gen 32:28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 32:29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”
The new name ישראל “Israel” is a combination of the verb ש.ר.ה, “to strive with,” and a designation for God, אל. The passage uniquely describes a person successfully battling God or his messenger, a suitable folk etymology for the origin of Israel’s name.
A little later on, when Jacob arrives in Bethel, he is again named Israel:
בראשית לה:ט וַיֵּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶל יַעֲקֹב עוֹד בְּבֹאוֹ מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ. לה:יוַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב לֹא יִקָּרֵא שִׁמְךָ עוֹד יַעֲקֹב כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Gen 35:9 God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. 35:10 God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” Thus He named him Israel.
The passage here is strange since it makes no reference to the previous renaming, implying that this story is either unaware of or deliberately ignoring the naming tradition preserved at the end of Genesis 32.
A Prediction of a Renaming
Traditional commentators were cognizant of this doublet, and in some cases suggested that the first story is not really a naming at all, but instead depicts the angel informing Jacob of what would happen in the future. Thus, Rashi (32:29) writes:
לא יעקב יאמר עוד שמך – לא יאמרו עליך עוד שהברכות בעקיבה וברמייה כי אם בשררה ובגילוי פנים, סופך שהקב״ה נגלה עליך בבית אל ומחליף את שמך ושם הוא מברכך
“Your name shall no longer be Jacob” – people will no longer say about you that you received the blessings through trickery and deceit (the meaning of “Jacob”), but rather with striving and openly (the meaning of “Israel”), and in the end, the Holy One, praised by he, will appear to you in Bethel and change your name and there he will bless you.
Rashi is building here on a midrashic reading of Isaiah 44:26 in Genesis Rabbah (78). The verse says:
מֵקִים דְּבַר עַבְדּוֹ
וַעֲצַת מַלְאָכָיו יַשְׁלִים
Who confirms the word of his servant,
and fulfills the prediction of his messengers
R. Berechiah (in Gen. Rab. 78) offers a midrash in the name of R. Levi tying this verse into God’s fulfilling the prediction of his angel that told Jacob about his new name:
… שנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על אבינו יעקב בשביל לקיים גזירתו של אותו מלאך שאמר לו לא יעקב, ואף הקדוש ברוך הוא אמר לו כן…
…The Holy One praised be he appeared to our father, Jacob in order to confirm the decree of that angel who said to him “Jacob no longer [will be your name],” and thus the Holy One, praised be he, said to him the same…
This explanation is clearly homiletical, but it illustrates the problem of the double naming.
Two Namings – Two Sources
Critical scholars have long argued that each of these name changes derives from different sources. The source of the second renaming, in ch. 35, is easy to identify as Priestly, since it refers to Jacob’s arrival from Paddan-aram, the name used in Priestly texts.
The first renaming of Jacob, in ch. 32, after he wrestles with the angel, likely derives from the E source. This is evident from the use of the word Elohim in the explanation of the name, which is the standard name for God in this source, as opposed to in J, which uses YHWH. The J source, then, does not include a renaming story.
“Your Name Shall No Longer be Jacob,” But It Is!
Both the E and P stories seem clear: Jacob is no longer going to be called Jacob, only Israel. And yet, even after these renaming episodes, the patriarch is still referred to as Jacob in E, J, and P texts.
This contrasts with how the name change functions in the story of Abram and Sarai, both of whom are renamed in chapter 17:
בראשית יז:ה וְלֹא יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם כִּי אַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ.
Gen 17:5 And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations.
בראשית יז:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל אַבְרָהָם שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ לֹא תִקְרָא אֶת שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי כִּי שָׂרָה שְׁמָהּ.
Gen 17:15 And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah.
God says that the old names will no longer be used, and indeed, after ch. 17, the Torah never refers to them again by their old names.
An Additional Name?
The problem of the persistence of name Jacob after these renamings has bothered both ancient and medieval commentators. The standard approach was to suggest that Israel was not meant to replace Jacob, but to supplement it. Thus, Abraham ibn Ezra (35:10) writes [bold added]:
לא יקרא שמך עוד יעקב לבדו כי גם ישראל.
Henceforth, you shall not be called Jacob exclusively, but also Israel.
This solution, which is also preferred by R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.; Gen 35:10), appears already in the 3rd cent. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus (Masekhta de-Pascha16), likely playing off the word “another” (עוד):
ויאמר לא יעקב יאמר עוד שמך וגו’ שם הראשון נתקיים לו ושם השני נתוסף לו.
“Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel’” – the first name was established for him and the second added for him.
Genesis Rabbah (78) actually records a debate about the exact the relationship between these two names:
תני לא שיעקר שם יעקב אלא כי אם ישראל יהיה שמך, ישראל יהיה עיקר ויעקב טפילה.
It was taught: It isn’t that the name Jacob was to be uprooted, “rather Israel will be your name” – Israel will be the main [name] and Jacob will be secondary.
ר’ זכריה בשם ר’ אחא מכל מקום יעקב שמך אלא כי אם ישראל יהיה שמך, יעקב עיקר וישראל מוסיף עליו.
R. Zechariah in the name of R. Acha said: “Jacob is certainly your name, “rather Israel will be your name” – Jacob is your main name and Israel is added to it.
This solution is elegant, but unfortunately does not comport with what the text says: The texts in Genesis 32 and 35 never say or imply that Israel is an extra name; they both state clearly that the name Jacob is replaced by Israel.
A Source-Critical Solution
The standard Documentary Hypotheses does not offer a clear solution to this problem, since, as noted above, both E and P continue to use both names for the patriarch. The Supplementary Hypothesis (SH), however—according to which the Pentateuch began with one original text (E) and was expanded by successive additions (J, then P, etc.) without cutting earlier material from the revered core text—offers a plausible solution: In the Joseph cycle, J uses the name Jacob exclusively while E uses the name Israel.
E and Israel – J and Jacob
A number of passages show the Elohist’s (E) preference for the name Israel. For example, in chapter 48, Joseph meets his father again for the first time:
בראשית מח:ח וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת בְּנֵי יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵלֶּה. מח:טוַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אָבִיו בָּנַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה וַיֹּאמַר קָחֶם נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרֲכֵם. מח:י וְעֵינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּבְדוּ מִזֹּקֶן לֹא יוּכַל לִרְאוֹת וַיַּגֵּשׁ אֹתָם אֵלָיו וַיִּשַּׁק לָהֶם וַיְחַבֵּק לָהֶם. מח:יא וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יוֹסֵף רְאֹה פָנֶיךָ לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי וְהִנֵּה הֶרְאָה אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים גַּם אֶת זַרְעֶךָ.
Gen 48:8 Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “Who are these?” 48:9 And Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” “Bring them up to me,” he said, “that I may bless them.” 48:10 Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So [Joseph] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. 48:11 And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.”
And later in that same chapter:
בראשית מח:כא וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יוֹסֵף הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מֵת וְהָיָה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּכֶם וְהֵשִׁיב אֶתְכֶם אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם.
Gen 48:21 Then Israel said to Joseph, “I am about to die; but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.
The name Elohim (God) as opposed to YHWH marks this text as Elohistic, and here the third patriarch is referred to only as Israel.
In contrast, J uses the name Jacob in the Joseph cycle (ch. 37-50). For example:
בראשית לז:לד וַיִּקְרַע יַעֲקֹב שִׂמְלֹתָיו וַיָּשֶׂם שַׂק בְּמָתְנָיו וַיִּתְאַבֵּל עַל בְּנוֹ יָמִים רַבִּים. לז:לה וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל בָּנָיו וְכָל בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֵרֵד אֶל בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה
Gen 37:34 Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning for his son many days. 37:35All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.”
Note that the phrase in italics about Jacob going to Sheol in grief appears again in Judah’s plea to Joseph:
בראשית מד:יח וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר…מד:לא וְהָיָה כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי אֵין הַנַּעַר וָמֵת וְהוֹרִידוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ אֶת שֵׂיבַת עַבְדְּךָ אָבִינוּ בְּיָגוֹן שְׁאֹלָה.
Gen 44:18 And Judah approached him [Joseph] and said… 44:31 when he (=Jacob) sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief.
From following this trope, we see that in one J text Jacob (not Israel) says it, and it is repeated by Judah (a J character that does not appear in E) in his attempt to convince Joseph to have mercy on the brothers’ poor elderly father.
E is unique among the Pentateuchal sources, having been composed in the Northern Kingdom, which was called Israel. J, in contrast, was composed in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, as was P and most of the Bible.  For E, Jacob/Israel is the most important patriarch. But for J, Abraham, the patriarch of the south, was the most important ancestor.
In E, Abraham sacrifices his son Isaac when the latter was a child, ending the line of Abraham; Jacob in E is not related to Abraham. J resurrects Isaac and makes him Jacob’s father, thus making Abraham the progenitor of Jacob. Abraham is depicted much more positively by J than Jacob, and is given precedent by being his ancestor.
When the E document was brought to “southern Israel” (i.e., Judah), by scribes fleeing the North after the Assyrian conquest, Judean authors sought to make E’s account of Israel’s origins more relevant to their readers and thus added Judah and Judean themes everywhere they could. This process began with J, the first southern supplementer, but since all later sources were southern, this pattern persisted among later authors as well. In the case of Jacob vs. Israel, perhaps J wished to de-emphasize the significance of this third patriarch, after whom the entire nation, “Israel” was named.
In E, Jacob is a strong and virile character. He lifts the stone of the well on his own in 29:10, does not fear Esau, and contends with Laban (31:36). His struggle and victory over an angel is consistent with this depiction of the third patriarch. In J, however, Jacob is always afraid: he fears his father (Gen 27:11-12), he fears Esau (32:8), and he fears the Canaanites (34:30).
Since J’s Jacob is weak and fearful, it simply did not seem appropriate to use E’s name which implies strength and decisiveness. Thus, despite the fact that J wrote later than E and knew the story of Jacob’s name change to Israel, he continued to use Jacob exclusively. J also may have been uncomfortable with the idea that a man can defeat an angel which undergirds the name Israel in E’s narrative. E, on the other hand, would have little trouble with such a powerful human protagonist. Indeed, E’s Moses plagues Egypt with hail, locusts, and darkness with his own magical power, with no help from God.
Finally, while E records that the Patriarch was named Jacob before the angel renamed him Israel, it is J that includes the negative etymologies for this name. First, when Jacob is born, J states:
בראשית כה:כו וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב…
Gen 25:26 Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel (עקב) of Esau; so they named him Jacob…
Even more negative is Esau’s understanding of the name in the story in which Jacob steals Esau’s blessing:
בראשית כז:לו וַיֹּאמֶר הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם אֶת בְּכֹרָתִי לָקָח וְהִנֵּה עַתָּה לָקַח בִּרְכָתִי…
Gen 27:36 [Esau] said, “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me (ויעקבני) these two times? First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!”
This is not simply an etymology. Esau’s protest is a reflection of the negative light J shines on Jacob, which contrasts with E’s positive portrayal of this patriarch evident in the renaming account of Genesis 32. J’s insistence on using this name, with its negative connotations, and not the more positive “Israel,” should be seen as a way of J’s lowering the position of Jacob as the key patriarch in favor of Abraham.
Postscript: Jacob and Israel in P
What then of P’s name change? Why does P continue to use Jacob throughout chapters 35-50 despite the name change that states explicitly “no longer will you be called Jacob but Israel”? P’s name change is an attempt by the Priestly author to “sanitize” the very problematic name-change of Chapter 32 in which a man defeats a divine being.
But since P is a supplementary layer to the combined J and E text, it would have made little sense for him to use the name Israel exclusively when the very text he was supplementing seemed to use it haphazardly. Any such desire for consistent use of the name Israel post his renaming would have been thwarted by J’s insistence on calling this patriarch Jacob exclusively and thus creating an inconsistent text in the Joseph cycle. What could P do other than follow suit?
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December 29, 2017
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Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.
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